As a pregnant feminist expecting parenthood to be 50/50 with my feminist husband, I was very optimistic. Four years later, I found myself being the Go-To-Parent both inside and outside the home. I was doing more than 50% of the parenting and household duties while working enough part-time jobs to earn a full-time salary.
Even if women apologize too often, this messy situation was mostly my own fault. I’m sorry that I forgot to talk with my husband. I’m sorry that our son was growing up thinking that women run households.
Let me back up. First, what is a Go-To Parent? That’s who daycare calls when the kid is ill, even when the other parent works two buildings away. It is the parent who remembers to do the shopping so the kid’s favorite pajamas are clean to wear on school’s “pajama day.” In legal terms, this is the “primary custodial parent.” In everyday terms, it is the person who does most of the kid-related and household-related chores. That person was me.
I carried the baby and, after his birth, tried to breastfeed (two things securely in my realm.) After our son’s first birthday, both of us should have been equal once again. And yet, I continued to be the one to email his teachers and RSVP for his birthday parties. I ordered our son’s clothes during sales. I knew his friends’ names and most of the parents’ too. I was doing all of the emotional labor for the three of us.
Sure, my husband would take our son out for bike rides and get him ready for bed. But spending quality time with someone is different from doing most of the so-called-dirty work during her work hours.
One day, our son said something about how “Daddy is a professor.” I asked him what my job was.
“My mommy,” he responded gleefully.
I was hoping to be called “writer” or “teacher,” since I am both. I am his mommy, of course, but not only.
I started to resent my husband. It wasn’t just because that first year was exhausting, especially combined with recovering from a C-section and trying to parent a bad sleeper, but also because I found myself resenting my husband’s many successes. Sure, I was sometimes eking out poems and presenting at conferences, but I wasn’t moving forward in my career like he was. What if, despite the motherhood penalty, I could write more and even increase my salary?
At this point, we were both in our forties and knew better. We had been functioning independent adults before we met and after we were married. We were supportive of each other. What was wrong with us? And why, when my husband did something or offered to do something, would I step in say, “I got it?”
After our son went to sleep, which was always too late, we started to argue.
And then my husband said, “What do you want me to do to carry my share?” And this time I heard him.
As much as the child in me wanted to continue to blame him and be the victim, my husband was right. He would offer to do the laundry and I’d respond that I could do it. He’d offer to do the dishes after dinner and I’d answer that I’ll “finish my chores.” (Yes, I fancied myself a sort of Little-House-on-the-Prairie-housewife.) He’d offer to go food shopping and … you get the point.
I was so used to doing all of these things that I couldn’t stop. Did I take so much pride in the laundry that I didn’t want to share? Was I really excited to scrub the burnt dinner edges off the pan?
Was I falling prey to what “society” wanted me to do as the mother? Was “society” going to knock on the door to check that I had emptied out the dishwasher or would my poems, if I ever wrote new ones, be read by “society?”
The obvious punch-to-the-gut realization? Communication — the key to the beginning of a relationship — is also the key to a healthy relationship after becoming parents. We needed to communicate. It was Relationship 101 stuff and, after over ten years together, we’d somehow forgotten.
Cynthia Kane, author of How to Communicate Like a Buddhist, reminds us in her book, “Compassion enters our communication the moment we begin to see where the other person is coming from. The other person now becomes an equal participant instead of an opposing force we need to deal with.”
It was time to remember to communicate and do so compassionately. We chose each other and could surely sort this out.
We sat down, talked and wrote things in our shared, electronic calendar in an effort to make a clear plan. We’d each work late one night a week. We’d share the laundry and food shopping responsibilities. We’d share ordering certain household supplies and kid-related objects. I’ll try to plan annual writing residencies and he’ll present at fewer conferences. We’ll try to even the playing field.
And we’ll have more date nights. We’ll remember why we did get together over ten years ago. The optimism was back, baby.